I read a recent USA Today article, the thesis of which was this: American cities, build your arks and get ready for a flood of aging boomers. If this "back third" of our lives is to be anywhere near as good as the first two, I submit it's time to apply some proactive American "can do" to how the old can live rather than pursue more of the same old approaches.
You ever see the South Park "Grey Dawn" episode? That's the one where a horde of old people get behind the wheels of their cars mowing down scores of South Parkers until the citizenry rises up and deprives the elderly of their licenses, only to be thwarted by the AARP. The addled death car drivers are finally defeated when the kids cut off their food supply. Haven't seen it? That means you are a mature post-50 adult. I am not. Mature, that is.
But there's a lesson in all this. Old people are horrible drivers. Actually, no, that's not the real lesson. To me, it's that maybe the elderly shouldn't be encouraged by bad alternatives to stay in their houses for decades -- like my esteemed parents -- and then be forced either to pretend they aren't old and get behind the wheel to get places, or to go to a nursing home or some other depressing place. The lesson for me (probably only for me) from this awesome episode is -- to quote the venerable Kevin Costner (or his movie at least) -- "if you build it, they will come."
Huh? Build what? Nursing homes? NO. Nursing homes are where the imaginations of the businessmen and governments that create them, and the old people who become their inmates, go to die. No, instead build something much cooler -- a place for the old to live, not to die.
Yes, there are assisted living places for people with money. But I hate the term assisted living. It sounds like life support, somehow. What I'm thinking of is a way to embrace this back third of life. Which leads to a more general rant: We have become a reactive rather than proactive nation in everything but the financial industry's inexhaustible industriousness in finding new and dodgier ways to skim money from the economy. Where's the spark of real creativity and can-do, applied not only to our decaying society generally, but more specifically to how aging boomers can live?
My thesis of American society is: We started with the spark of freedom and now after the conflagration that created this country and sparked two centuries of progress, we are left with the embers of that original America, a country now dominated by avarice, prejudice and cowardice. Cowardice? Yes, the cowardice of hiding behind untruths and distortions, not facing up to the facts. Global warming? A hoax. Loving the springlike February weather, BTW. Economic inequality? Not nearly as important as making sure a black president doesn't send his big government into my trailer to take my guns and make me accept black people or women as equals. The inevitable process of aging? Put it in a closet with the other skeletons, I would rather delude myself I'm young with the help of surgery, dietary supplements and a place for old people to go where they're not in my face all the time.
In other words, and here's the chance of my actually returning to the point: We have become a reactive nation and that's as evident in our handling of old age as it is in our reactions to other seismic trends.
How do we react to old age?
Ignore it, in fact, combat it. Jamie Lee Curtis' recent piece is spot on in decrying the way we try to suppress the signs of age. Confine it. In homes which are, of course, anything but homes. The sterile institutionalization of places for all but the most wealthy oldsters bespeaks the hiding of something shameful rather than the embracing of something natural. Denial is not just a river in Riverdale where you put old people away in an old folks home that's more hospital than home.
Postpone it. Like Neville we wait and we wait while our parents' houses start to crumble around them since they no longer have the energy and/or money to keep them up, we wait to make decisions about where the old people in our lives should go since few to none of the options offer real upside. Instead it's damage control, high costs, low standard of living. It's there but for the graces of God go I instead of there with the grace of God I will go.
With that in mind, we may as well devote societal resources to creating living options old folks will like rather than tolerate or worse. Why? We are those old folks not long from now. How? Pro act. That's right; it's time we got our American groove back when it comes to tackling this fact of life we all have to face. When we're about to have a baby, we have fun planning, making their nursery just right, our friends throw baby showers, we get tons of gifts and the atmosphere of birth is optimistic and forward-looking. If we put our minds to it (coupled with self-interest, given we are all speeding toward this fate), how close can we get to an up experience for the elderly rather than approaching it like the down of gravity?
My thought is let's get all entrepreneurial with it. It's served our nation before. Let's create communities and approaches for the elderly that serve all income brackets and don't just serve applesauce on a tray. Instead of a flood, let's see this as a rising tide which can lift these frail backs of the elderly. Is this a rank generalization devoid of specific proposals? Yes, but it gives me an excuse to come back and talk about those, watch this space.